NINDS Neurological Complications of AIDS Information Page

What Are Neurological Complications of AIDS?

AIDS is primarily an immune system disorder caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), but it can also affect the nervous system. HIV does not appear to directly invade nerve cells but it jeopardizes their health and function, causing symptoms such as confusion, forgetfulness, behavioral changes, severe headaches, progressive weakness, loss of sensation in the arms and legs, stroke, cognitive motor impairment, or damage to the peripheral nerves. Other complications that can occur as a result of HIV infection or the drugs used to treat it include pain, seizures, shingles, spinal cord problems, lack of coordination, difficult or painful swallowing, anxiety disorder, depression, fever, vision loss, gait disorders, destruction of brain tissue, and coma. Other AIDS-related nervous system disorders may be caused by certain cancers or by illnesses that would not otherwise affect people with healthy immune systems.

Among the most common neurological complications are: AIDS dementia complex, causing symptoms such as encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), behavioral changes, and a gradual decline in cognitive function; central nervous system lymphomas, cancerous tumors that either begin in the brain or result from a cancer that has spread from another site in the body; cryptococcal meningitis; cytomegalovirus infections; herpes virus infections; neuropathy; neurosyphilis; progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML); and psychological and neuropsychiatric disorders.

Is There Any Treatment?

No single treatment can cure the neurological complications of AIDS. Some disorders require aggressive therapy while others are treated symptomatically.

Medicines range from analgesics sold over the counter to antiepileptic drugs, opiates, corticosteroids, and some classes of antidepressants. Other treatments include radiation therapy or chemotherapy to kill or shrink cancerous brain tumors that may be caused by HIV, antifungal or antimalarial drugs to combat certain bacterial infections, and penicillin to treat neurosyphilis. Aggressive antiretroviral therapy is used to treat AIDS dementia complex, PML, and cytomegalovirus encephalitis. HAART, or highly active antiretroviral therapy, combines at least three drugs to reduce the amount of virus circulating in the blood and may also delay the start of some infections.

What Is the Prognosis?

The overall prognosis for individuals with AIDS in recent years has improved significantly because of new drugs and treatments. AIDS clinicians often fail to recognize neurological complications of AIDS. Those who suspect they are having neurological complications should be sure to discuss these with their doctor.

What Research Is Being Done?

Within the Federal government, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), one part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), supports research on the neurological consequences of AIDS. The NINDS works closely with its sister agency, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which has primary responsibility for research related to HIV and AIDS.

NIH Patient Recruitment for Neurological Complications of AIDS Clinical Trials

  • At NIH Clinical Center
  • [Throughout the U.S. and Worldwide]( Complications of AIDS)


Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation
1140 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Suite 200
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: 202-296-9165 888-499-HOPE (-4673)
Fax: 202-296-9185

amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research
120 Wall Street
13th Floor
New York, NY 10005-3908
Tel: 212-806-1600
Fax: 212-806-1601

National Association of People with AIDS
8401 Colesville Road
Suite 750
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Tel: 240-247-0880
Fax: 240-247-0574

National NeuroAIDS Tissue Consortium
401 N. Washington Street
Suite 700
Rockville, MD 20850
Tel: 866-668-2272 301-251-1161 ext. 186
Fax: 301-576-4597

National Prevention Information Network
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, DHHS
P.O. Box 6003
Rockville, MD 20849-6003
Tel: 301-562-1098 800-458-5231
Fax: 888-282-7681

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)
National Institutes of Health, DHHS
6610 Rockledge Drive, MSC 6612
Bethesda, MD 20892-6612
Tel: 301-496-5717

AIDSInfo (AIDS Information Service)
P.O. Box 6303
Rockville, MD 20849-6303
Tel: 301-519-0459 800-HIV-0440 (448-0440) TTY: 888-480-3739
Fax: 301-519-6616


Related NINDS Publications and Information

  • Alzheimer's Disease: Hope Through Research
    Information booklet about Alzheimer's disease, vascular dementia, and other types of dementia compiled by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
  • Health Disparities Planning Panel on NeuroAIDS in Minority Populations
    Report of the Health Disparities Planning Panel on NeuroAIDS in Minority Populations meeting held July 16, 2001.

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